When I first met the H’Mông, one of Vietnam’s most well-known ethnic groups, I was inspired to learn more about their traditional way of dyeing fabrics for my Indigo Collection of photographs. The H’Mông are praised for their beautiful clothing that is handcrafted with sustainable techniques. This article gives insight into the process and the importance that indigo has in H’Mông culture as well as offering the reader behind-the-scenes insights into my journey to photograph the dyeing processes of other tribes such as the Dao, the Nung, and the La Chi.
Natural Dyeing Techniques
of Ethnic Groups in Vietnam
The H’Mông women push swathes of fabric into tubs of bubbling blue dye, swirling them to make sure every woven edge.
After a minimum of 30 minutes, with hands tinted deep indigo, turquoise and violet, they fish the wet cloth out of the bath, wring out the pieces and hang them to drip-dry in the open air. The longer the fabric is mixed in with the dye, the darker it will become. Eventually, the cloth will oxidize into a distinctive blue—the recognizable cobalt of blue jeans.
As the fabric dries on lines hanging outside their thatched-roof homes, the women carry on with their many daily tasks from childcare, to farming to gathering firewood.
Their hands are often deeply lined from decades of work, permanently stained as bright as bluebirds from the repetition of dyeing the indigo cloth over the years.
Natural Tribal Traditions
After a communal meal of sticky white rice and stir-fried vegetables, the women go back to their color baths. Their background music is that of a rural village: children at play, livestock shuffling down the dirt paths, roosters crowing. The smallest children, still too young to wander off with their brothers and sisters, peer with curiosity around the skirts of their grandmothers into the frothy vats of blue indigo.
The traditional handspun clothing that the H’Mông ethnic group wears for special occasions and, in some villages, daily life, is tinted an indigo blue that is so dark it becomes black. The method—dyeing, hanging, and drying—must be repeated twice a day for one month to achieve this color. Depending on the subgroup of the H’Mông—Black H’Mông, Flower H’Mông, Striped H’Mông, Red H’Mông etc.—the cloth used on the women’s garments is then embroidered with bright stitching while the men’s clothing is left simple and somber
For some tribes, the deeper the indigo the more prized the cloth becomes. Some say that they can tell when a bolt of cloth is finished just by the depth of color present on a woman’s hands.
Indigo Leaves and Hemp Harvesting
High up in the hills above Sapa, the tribes still make the traditional dye out of the leaves of the indigo plant that are indigenous to Vietnam.
The plants with their wide green leaves and barely purple flowers are scattered on the hillsides near the H’Mông homes. They typically yield a crop twice a year.
The dye is contained in the leaves of the indigo plant, which, once harvested, are fermented with a combination of various additives such as rice wine, urine or lye.
When the fermentation process is complete (timing that the H’Mông women seem to know instinctively), the leaves are extracted and they are allowed to oxidize in the open air. Dried leaves can be ground into powder or paste and stored until it is time to use the mixture on the fabric.
The fabric itself is traditionally spun from hemp plants; however, more than ever the long process of hemp production and weaving is forgone in Vietnam for pre-purchased cloth.
Indigo has been a sought after color for more than 6,000 years and continues to be used in its natural form in some locations across Asia and South and Central America. Other ethnic groups in Vietnam such as the Dao, the Nung, and the La Chi also maintain strong indigo dyeing traditions and some even sell their fabrics at the markets for income for their communities. But now, millions of kilos of synthetic indigo dye are produced every year just to color blue jeans, and the natural dyeing traditions are rapidly being pushed aside in favor of modern methods.
Why should buyers favor natural indigo dye over synthetic in Vietnam?
Sustainability is a word that has been used (perhaps overused) a lot over the past five years. Sometimes, it is added to a product description as an after thought, simply to target a certain clientele that tries to be more conscientious about their “footprint” on this earth. There is even a word for this practice of fake environmentalism – “Greenwashing”.
Yet, when it comes to companies that “bluewash” by falsely claiming they use natural indigo dyes, they are risking more than just bad publicity. In this case, sustainability stands for the preservation of the environment as well as the communities who practice these age-old traditions.
In regards to the environment, when natural indigo dye is made, fertilizer can be created from the leaves after the dye has been extracted and the water can be used to irrigate crops.
Synthetic indigo dye is made from petrochemicals, which leave behind hazardous chemical waste.
In some of the ethnic group’s rural villages, where indigo dye has traditionally been harvested, the techniques for how to craft the traditional trib al costumes are not being passed down to younger generations. In some cases, the entirety of the knowledge is held in the minds and hands of the eldest women in the communities, many over the age of 80-years-old.
Purchasing authentic, handmade indigo-dyed fabrics can give long-lasting employment opportunities to the ethnic groups living in Vietnam as well as maintaining their motivation to continue teaching the process to their children and grandchildren. The styles and methods may change and evolve over time in order to stay relevant but preserving the H’Mông ethnic group’s crafting techniques is also a way to protect their cultural heritage.
A Voyage to Meet the Ethnic Groups in Vietnam Becomes a Passion
When I first visited the H’Mông ethnic group in North Vietnam, I was inspired like many before me to photograph them because of the otherworldly finery of their garments and headdresses in contrast with the rural world surrounding them. Now, I’ve returned close to a dozen times to the different villages in the area, each time with a purpose in mind – to document the ethnic groups of Vietnam, their traditional crafting techniques and to honor their heritage.
While working on my fine art photography series entitled Indigo Collection, I spent countless hours with the H’Mông women kneeling along with them next to the pungent vats of indigo dye, listening to their bright conversations and easy laughter. They became a part of my world, and I theirs.
When they paused from their work to prepare a meal or to offer me a cup of tea, I loved watching their hands tinted with the remnants of indigo dye carrying out these simple household tasks.
In my Precious Heritage museum located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An, there are examples of the H’Mông costumes preserved alongside portraits and costumes from all the ethnic groups in Vietnam. I have only to pause next to the fabrics and touch the intricate embroidery to return in my mind to the green hills around Sapa and the warm smiles of the H’Mông people, the beauty of their heritage present right there on their hands.